Raja Shehadeh: occupied by thoughts of occupation

Award-winning Palestinian author says he believes Israel’s nearly half-century-long occupation will eventually end. But the outcome may be radically different to what either Palestinians or Israelis expect. Hugh Naylor reports

Shehadeh, shown near an historic qasr structure on the outskirts of Ramallah, exudes patience. "You have to think long term." Heidi Levine for The National
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RAMALLAH // One could be forgiven for thinking Raja Shehadeh has grown bitter after decades of seemingly futile opposition to an Israeli occupation that has further embedded itself and dimmed the prospects of freedom for his fellow Palestinians.

Some critics of his award-winning writing certainly think so. A review in Britain’s Independent newspaper described his 2010 memoir and historical narrative, A Rift in Time: Travels with My Ottoman Uncle, as a “book written by a grieving, angry man”.

In person, however, Shehadeh, perhaps the most prominent Palestinian author among English-reading audiences, above all exudes patience. He believes Israel’s nearly half-century-long occupation will eventually come to an end.

But it may be a long time in coming and produce a radically different outcome than what either Palestinians or Israelis may expect.

“You have to think long term,” Shehadeh said during an interview with The National at an upscale cafe in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Sitting on a couch of oversized brown and orange pillows that rivalled his diminutive frame, the soft-spoken, London-educated lawyer discussed what he saw as the impermanence of the region’s current political geography.

The tumult of the Arab uprisings should be kept in context, he said. And so too the current Palestinian predicament.

“The context is that only 100 years ago, there was no fragmentation in the region into the countries that we now take for granted, as forever. This is not forever,” said Shehadeh, 62, who has written 13 books on subjects ranging from the legal issues facing Palestinians to several other non-fiction works that grapple with occupation and the murder of his father in 1985.

“These are the products of a particular situation that happened after the First World War.”

He seemed disinterested in debating the contours of a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement or the feasibility of the so-called two-state solution, which for many Palestinians has become an illusion. His vision is more ambitious.

“We should always be aware of what are dreams and what is reality. So my dream is not only one state, but one huge confederation in the entire eastern Mediterranean,” said Shehadeh, who envisions this to include both Israeli Jews and Arabs across the region.

That idea may seem ethereal if not unsettling for Israelis, who are warily eyeing the civil war in Syria and turmoil in a revolutionary Egypt.

It would also unnerve the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership in Ramallah that has predicated its existence on more than 20 years of peace negotiations to secure a still-elusive Palestinian state alongside Israel.

But it is an idea borne of frustration at the repeated failure of those talks and the unrelenting expansion of Israel’s settlements that many fear has already thwarted the possiblity of a viable Palestinian state.

A co-founder of the pre-eminent Palestinian human rights organisation, Al Haq, Shehadeh knows intimately the mechanisms of occupation and the legal infrastructure that powers it. For years, he waged legal battles in Israeli military courts against convoluted justifications for confiscating Palestinian land for Jewish settlers.

A failure to address such issues helped persuade him to join the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said in opposing the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which gave Palestinians a measure of self-rule but no concrete road to an independent state. Since then, the number of settlers in the Palestinian territories has more than doubled, to more than 500,000.

His dissension at the time may ultimately be proven right, but he shares with most fellow Palestinians a frustration at their leadership’s inability to change course despite Oslo’s apparent failure.

“I’m not saying that people should not be involved in politics and not try, but everyone should know their limits,” he said, referring to the Palestinian leaders who cling to negotiations even after two decades of failure.

Yet Shehadeh’s experiences of living through military occupation, two intifadas and the limits of Palestinian self-rule under the Oslo framework have filled his literary work with gripping narratives. His books have earned critical acclaim, such as Britain’s Orwell Prize for his 2007 memoir Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, which recounts years of hiking through a bucolic West Bank increasingly fraught with checkpoints and unnerving encounters with Israeli settlers and soldiers.

Admirers and friends say Shehadeh’s writing contributes to a trend of literature and film highlighting the perspective of Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. Such works include the 2012 Academy Award-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras, which recounts the struggle of a Palestinian village in the West Bank against Israel’s separation barrier.

“Raja did a great job by presenting the Palestinian case through literature. He’s been using this venue in a very creative and fantastic way, delivering the message but in a way people are more receptive to and that can reach a wider audience,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a former Palestinian presidential candidate.

Shehadeh also has had an impact on a handful of Israelis, such as Gideon Levy, a journalist at Israel’s Haaretz newspaper who is widely known for highlighting the vagaries of his country’s rule over Palestinians.

Levy’s first interview with a Palestinian, in the early 1980s, was with Shehadeh, marking the beginning of sorts of his interest in Palestinian issues.

“That meeting was a deep impression on me; I was moved by him, his intellect,” Levy recalled.

Still, Shehadeh said the motivation of his literary pursuits was neither necessarily political nor a desire for his work to become a Palestinian cause célèbre. Rather, he said, it was “to write well and write beautifully”.

Writing also helps him make sense of his turbulent surroundings. “When you write your thoughts and feelings and emotions and so on, then you can move on to new ones. Otherwise, they will keep rotating in your mind and you go in circles,” he said.

That turbulence began as the child of a refugee father, Aziz, who like so many other Palestinians was forced to flee his home during the upheaval that led to Israel’s creation in 1948.

Aziz, a lawyer, left his native city of Jaffa to resettle in Ramallah, then under Jordanian rule, where he raised Raja and three other children. “He lost everything, and there was this destitution all around him. So we were poor,” Shehadeh said.

The Ramallah of Shehadeh’s childhood was much more modest than the modern-day centre of administration for the West Bank. The city now houses dozens of high-end cafes and restaurants and its streets are full of expensive cars – all of which is buoyed by a PA-run economy that is heavily reliant on aid from Europe and the United States.

“It was boring,” he said. “There was no sense of the consumer society whatsoever.”

But it also offered his childhood a freer landscape in which to play. Shehadeh’s education at the city’s Quaker-run Friends School gave him fluency in English and a love for writing it. (His writing style, he said, “doesn’t work very well in Arabic”).

He went on to study English literature at the American University of Beirut and then law in Britain before returning in the late 70s to Ramallah, where he lives with his American wife, Penny.

In 1985, a Palestinian murdered Aziz in an attack that Shehadeh believes Israel played a role in. The Israelis, he said, had “concealed evidence that the person who did it was a collaborator working for them”.

Despite all that he lost to Israel, Aziz was one of the first Palestinian proponents of a two-state solution after the 1967 regional war that saw Israel capture the Palestinian territories.

But even he quickly realised that the settlements made such an outcome virtually impossible. “Everything that is happening now, he foresaw,” Shehadeh said of his father.

For now, he is working on a series of lectures he will deliver next month to mark the 10th anniversary of Edward Said’s death.

He also said he would not give up hope for a more ambitious and equitable vision for peace. As a writer, his starting point for building such a vision is imagination.

“It’s very important to imagine something new, to be excited by imagination. And that imagination will mean, someday, that we can all live better,” he said.